The decision to hold the Bolin Family Scholarship Evening program virtually this year turned out to be providential. The event took place on February 16, a night when much of Dallas was paralyzed by a winter storm. But the Zoom program was able to proceed as planned.

The speaker was David Brooks, New York Times columnist, best-selling author and regular commentator for the “PBS NewsHour” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Brooks returned, having spoken in 2020 on campus to a sold-out crowd at the Perkins’ Bolin Family Perkins Scholarship Luncheon.

The event was named for sponsors Jane Bolin, a member of the Perkins Executive Board, and her husband Pat. Sponsors for the event at various levels were all members of the Perkins Executive Board.  The planning committee was made up of the officers of the Executive Board, including Chair Bishop Mike McKee and Vice-Chairs, Katherine Glaze Lyle and Dodee Frost Crockett, Dean Craig Hill, Advancement Associate Lee Henry, and Development Director John Martin. All told, the 2021 event raised $175,000 for the Perkins Student Scholarship Fund.

For the program, Brooks offered his thoughts on the past year, asking the question, “How can we repair a society that’s become pretty broken?” He approached the question through the concept of Bildung – a German word for “the complete moral, intellectual, and civic formation of a person.”

His own formation, Brooks said, included the positive influences of a church camp he attended as a child. He’s still in touch with many of the friends made there.  “That’s the kind of nurturing community that instills certain values,” he said, adding that he was also formed by New York – where he grew up – as well as Grace Church School, where the seeds of his own spiritual formation were first planted.

Bildung has no equivalent word in the American vocabulary, Brooks added. “We think about teaching and learning and not formation,” he said. “As a result, this formation is not happening at a deep level.”

A crucial question now, he said, is: “How are young people being formed in this year of isolation?” Many young adults reported feelings of loneliness before the COVID-19 pandemic; those have increased significantly over the past year.

“That is the hardest part of a hard year,” he said. “It is the sense that we are not as connected as we were.  We are not being formed into the people that we could be. But these trends didn’t start in 2020; they’re been happening for a long time.”

Why? Brooks cited two theories.

“First, as a society, we chose personal freedom over connection,” he said. Americans no longer grow up in big families. They’ve chosen personal space and privacy over connection. There are fewer social connections. “Second, we chose achievement over equality,” he said.  He described the ways that the American meritocracy passes advantages from affluent, well-educated parents on to their kids. About three quarters of the students in elite colleges in the U.S. come from families that are among the top 1% of earners.

“As a result, a lot of people and parts of the country are being left behind,” he said. “People in big media and big tech don’t see them. We’re being raised in atmospheres of isolation and a loss of trust.”  He expected the pandemic might rally the nation; instead, it has fostered distrust and conspiracy theories. That distrust is a crisis, Brooks added – but crises have the advantage of revealing problems and pointing to potential solutions.

“It’s the hard times, ‘in the valley,’ that can open up our spirits and our souls,” he said. “The past year has been a hard year but a revelatory year. I hope it has shifted our culture, that we will come out of it different than we went into it.”

Brooks said that Americans “need to get a lot better at seeing each other. The Bible is full of stories of failures of the knowledge of the heart. We have to get better at that skill of seeing.”

Americans society needs to create a denser social architecture, “to lift up those who are community builders, who are trusted, who create community.”  He also called for an expansion of morally functional institutions.

“Every institution can become a thicker community, one that surrounds people with thick emotional spiritual and moral bonds,” he said. “It’s not passing people along. It’s doing Bildung.”

Brooks described the work of his wife, Anne Snyder, author of The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal (2019). She developed a list of questions to assess how well institutions are forming people: Does the organization have a strong purpose? Does it have liturgies or rituals that unite people?  Does it enjoy the full engagement of all of its members? Does it put relationship wealth at the foundation of its success? Does it offer opportunities for struggle and growth? Are vulnerability, accountability and joy part of the experience?

Brooks concluded by citing the work of Samuel Huntington, who noted cycles in history marked by periods of vast change and low social trust that tend to occur every 60 years.  If the pattern holds, another cycle would’ve begun in 2020.

“The good news is, we’ve been through this before,” Brooks said. “Each time, we come out different. So, I leave this with a sense of optimism about the future. Our culture needs to get knocked in the nose sometimes. But it gets up different.”

David Brooks Recommends

At the conclusion of his talk, Dean Craig Hill asked Brooks what books he’s currently reading. Here’s his list:

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman and Rod Dreher

The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits